Decision Making Is More Important Than You Realize

When Ted Dintersmith came to our class on April 24, I was expecting to talk about the future of education — A future that will have classrooms flowing with technology or a different pedagogical approach for each teacher. Little did I know that Mr. Dintersmith would be talking about the future of thinking. How decision making is an essential part of learning that is often overlooked because it is seen as too elementary. You’re supposed to learn how to make decisions when you’re a child. Weighing risk and benefit does not come until a little later, but it is still supposed to come when you’re a “preteen”. To be honest, I felt like I had good decision making thanks in part to my parents, but I learned that decision-making is a skill that evolves with time, just like critical thinking and should be as important as critical thinking. Mr. Dintersmith brought up a profound example that really took be a back. He referenced the horrible death of the University of Virginia women’s lacrosse player, Yeardley Love. Mr. Dintersmith put us in the shoes of the UVA men’s lacrosse players, who had the opportunity to stop this. The UVA men’s lacrosse players spoke with George Huguely, the man who murdered Yeardley Love, and tried to handle the situation internally, but nothing seemed to work. I felt connected to the team’s attempt to help their friend by trying to handle it themselves. I know there have been many times I have tried to handle a problem with a friend internally and sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. These students were trying to help their friend without getting him in any serious trouble, but they did not do enough.

I then thought about this predicament and how Andover students should be equipped to battle this type of situation. I believe that PACE is something that needs to cover decision making in greater depth. Students need to confront those situations that take your breath away, like the Yeardley Love example did to me. These examples allows students to better handle difficult situations such as sexual assault. As a whole, I believe Andover should put a greater emphasis on not only cultivating student’s critical thinking skills, but also their decision making skills.

Meeting Us Halfway: What I’ve Learned So Far

It is often said that the experiments you learn the most from are the ones in which you fail. What happens when the experiment is one of learning itself?

This second term of Hacking came to be largely out of the class’s almost unanimous desire to, well, keep being in Hacking. We all loved the subject matter, and I think we also found Mr. Palfrey’s teaching style to be the perfect balance of structure and flexibility; few of the classes I’ve taken at Andover have so consistently avoided being either too relaxed or too rigorous. We were also inspired by the rapid forward momentum of technology in the context of knowledge, be it in classrooms, libraries, or entirely on the web. We wanted to take advantage of the opportunity having Mr. Palfrey as a teacher offered: we could dedicate an entire class period to studying education and re-evaluating Phillips Academy as an academic institution and a community, and also have some chance of actually causing some change on campus. Many of us were excited by the prospect of leaving our mark on the school, of actually causing some real change in a way that most students are never able to: through the administration itself.

While our class was too unconventional to be formally approved as an Independent Project, to the best of my knowledge it has acted very much like one. We proposed the goals, course materials, and structure of the class in a syllabus we wrote ourselves, and outside of a weekly meeting with Mr. Palfrey we are totally unsupervised. For the most part, everything was up to us. Recently, I’ve found that Andover students given an abstract mission or a complex controversy can rarely agree enough to move past debate and focus on practical matters. In some cases, this could be a good thing; discourse, when it is respectful and thoughtful, is as valuable as it is rare, and acting without it is often dangerous and ineffective. However, when we give ourselves one term (with a grand total of 18 hours of class time) to plan, develop, and orchestrate a complete analysis and potential overhaul of education at a school with more resources (and expectations) than just about any of its kind on the face of the Earth, we might be just a little pressed for time.

At least, that’s the way I have felt throughout much of this class. While I think that our discussions in class are valuable and have certainly taught me many things about the nature of education, I honestly believe that they are not as productive as they could be with a more traditional teacher. Over the past few weeks I have come to much more deeply appreciate the vast pool of knowledge, structure, and accountability that a teacher brings to the classroom. Most of us are teaching a group of students for the first time, and while I think our struggle to find truly effective course material and homework assignments is understandable, in a comparative sense it is rather undesirable.

So, has this experimental class failed? No, I don’t think so. But I don’t think it has succeeded in living up to our expectations, either. We have been organized, but not as organized as some other classes. We have created substantive work, but not as substantive as some other classes. For better or for worse, I can scrape by without spending much time working on assignments from this class and then use that time to work on more time-pressing projects (or, admittedly, spend as many moments as I can with my friends before I leave Andover). So I do that. My Phillips Academy experience has not shaped me to be a dedicated, consistent scholar so much as an economic one; the amount of work I put into a course is roughly equivalent to the amount of work its teacher requires of me to get an average grade.

Ultimately, Hacking class so far has reaffirmed my belief that the teacher is the most important factor in a student’s education. The relatively free reign Phillips Academy faculty are given results in a strikingly clear example of how many different ways any given subject matter or skill can be taught. Take English 300, for example: while there are certainly many advantages to letting English teachers expand their curricula to cover materials they may deem more important than the standard canon of literature written by old, dead, white guys, the program almost immediately blossomed into a collection of randomly-assigned English electives with very little bearing on each other. Studying contemporary theory and film about the Algerian War develops significantly different analytical techniques than reading Shakespeare’s plays, as I found when I did both in my own English 300 class. If a student struggles to adapt to any one professor’s teaching style or materials, they are compensated with little more than a sympathetic pat on the back by their friends.

I could spend many more pages addressing the issues of widely disparate teaching and grading styles between teachers of the same department and even the same course, but I am only bringing them up here to illustrate the extraordinary influence a teacher holds over the education of their students, particularly in schools like Phillips Academy with very small class sizes. And if Hacking: A Practicum has taught me anything consistently over the past few weeks, it’s that self-education is a tremendously challenging and risky method, especially for people like me who struggle to find inner motivation. A TED talk is not a teacher. Khan Academy is not a teacher. They are audio-visual textbooks, presenting us with valuable information that we can revisit over and over, but they can never answer our questions, or explain it a different way, or make sure we’re not slacking our way through the class. The best thing that has ever happened to me has been the Andover faculty, of whom many have been the most intelligent, well-read, interesting, and compassionate people I’ve ever met. Teachers bring an irreplaceable human connection and background of learning which, for the time being, computers simply can’t replace. Our vision of designing an efficient and well-rounded class without actually learning it first was, in retrospect, probably a bit short-sighted.

That said, I think it is better to design an experiment with too optimistic a goal than to fall back to the status quo. We have still made a great deal of progress, and I think the work we have produced so far is nothing to be ashamed of. This class is an experiment, after all, and its failure could teach us just as much as its success – as long as we keep paying attention.

Week One: Pedagogy of the Oppressed

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As I sit down to write my midterm reflection, I cannot help but realize how much everything we have talked about this term relates back to the first kickoff week when we discussed Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire’s philosophies may be radical, and therefore must be analyzed through a highly interrogative lens, but they inspired several conversations about the direction of education in this pending digital age that are very worth having. Before I recap on some of the points made in that conversation, however, it is worth summarizing each of the four chapters of the book:

Chapter 1: Chapter one explores the evolved justification of oppression by delving into the dialectic between the oppressor and the oppressed. Freire admits that the oppressors may not know that they hold that responsibility, but also acknowledges that even those oppressors who do recognize their position are helpless to liberate the oppressed because both players are as such by circumstance. Freedom, he argues, is “the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion,” and it is defined by the achievements of the oppressors. (47) Therefore, the only way for anyone to be truly liberated is by understanding the cycle of oppression, respecting the knowledge of all rather than striving for the oppressor status, and striking a balance between theory and practice — praxis.

Chapter 2: In chapter two, Freire puts his theory about the oppressor and the oppressed into the context of education. He clearly has an issue with the way education has been conducted since the 19th century , so he compares two vastly different, somewhat extreme methods of education: the banking method, and the problem posing method. The banking method assumes that students, the oppressed, or the bankers, are passive, unquestioning, and submissive, while teachers, the oppressors or depositors, are controlling, dictatorial, and teach solely to fill students’ heads with preselected information. The banking method, as Freire would argue, perpetuates oppression because it is designed for the oppressors to break down the oppressed until they can achieve no higher status, and therefore needs to be avoided at all costs if we are to reform contemporary education. The problem-posing method, on the other hand, prompts a student to think for himself and develop her own ideas through challenging dialogue. This method defines every person, both teacher and traditional student, as student because every person has space to learn more regardless of how much they already know. It encourages students to recognize relationships between people and the world around them, it encourages creativity and independent discovery, leads to true liberation from intellectual oppression. For this reason, Freire suggests this problem-posing method as the antidote to remedy education and the ideal destination.

Chapter 3: Freire divides chapter three into what is essentially two parts. Part one analyzes the words that are the foundation of dialogue, and the way in which dialogue creates themes to shape how people collectively interact with the world. Words carry two components: reflection and action, and if the words used in dialogue embody neither of these components, they create idle chatter incapable of implementing change. The themes Freire proposes are most important to dialogue are love, humility, faith, trust, and hope, because they give humans the ability to alter their reality within given limit situations, and having the ability to alter reality is key to liberating the oppressed. Part two discusses guidelines for developing the themes from part one so that they may be used to establish a viable learning environment for the oppressed. He argues that authentic education is carried on only when there is quality dialogue with mutual trust between the teacher and the student, and uses that argument to structure an adult education program.

Chapter 4: In chapter four, Freire discusses the oppressed, the oppressors, and the revolutionaries in depth. The oppressors become known as the dominators, because they dominate the oppressed rather than help them elevate their status. Revolutionaries, on the other hand, use dialogical methods to liberate the oppressed using cooperation and cultural synthesis.

Though we spent a day discussing chapter four the majority of our class periods that week were spent discussing chapters one and two of Pedagogy of the Oppressed  and how Freire’s philosophy of education can relate to Andover and the teaching methods used in the classroom. As a result, the first discussion we had about Freire’s work was about whether or not his proposed plan is possible. We analyzed both the banking method and the problem posing method in depth to shine a light on both the pros and cons of each method of teaching. Is there anything good, or even necessary about the banking system? Is there a responsibility that teachers possess that makes them different from students, and if so, is that necessarily “oppressive?” Is it feasible to make every aspect of an educational institution follow the problem-posing model? 

Though there were a few people who stood firmly in support of one model or the other, most agreed that despite Freire’s good intentions, it simply is not feasible to rely on only a problem posing model. Teachers have two responsibilities: to provide students with the information and tools they need to learn, and to teach them how to use those tools. Therefore, in many cases particularly in the math and science fields, it is critical that teachers follow a banking-like method at least part of the time. Though those adults still have much room for their own learning, they are professionally prepared with information that they are supposed to deposit to their students — that is their job. If they do not take the time to deposit that information, then they are not preparing their students in the way that they should be prepared to think about the larger concepts. It would be as though a physics teacher omitted Newton’s laws in his lessons because he didn’t want to “oppress” his students by lecturing them, when in turn he is only failing to provide them with critical information in that field of study to prepare them for a further career. In short, some aspects of the banking method are necessary in educating people.

Freire is, however, headed in the right direction. Creativity, and the ability to use information to form independent thoughts is an imperative skill in today’s workforce, and those types of quality’s do not develop without guidance. If a student is not prompted to exercise those abilities as they are growing, those skills do not become second nature. The problem-posing method, on the other hand, encourages students to do just that. They are required to use information rather than just store it, and learn to think in an independent, creative, proactive way. After discussing each aspect of both methods extensively and arguing reasons in support for both sides, we determined that to achieve the ideal education system — one that would be suitable for Phillips Academy — we would have to strike a balance between the two methods to maximize the amount of information students learn while also teaching them how best to use that information for their own benefit.

Sexual Harassment at the Academy

Last week the Hacking class focused on the role discipline in school systems, and how Andover’s discipline system, in specific, affects the community . We talked about how the consequences of major offenses affect students in the aftermath of dealing with their consequences, how the disciplinary process at Andover could become more transparent, and what it truly means to be a “second chance” school. All of these topics grasped the attention of my peers in the Hacking class, but nothing caught our attention more than our revelation that there was not a section of the Blue Book, Andover’s rule book, that was dedicated to sexual harassment and its consequences. In the past few years there have, thankfully, not been many sexual harassment cases with which the administration has had to deal. However, there has been an uptick in the conversation of feminism, respect for one’s body, and the “hookup culture” on campus. There has also been a national outcry from sexual harassment victims on college campuses, and their respective colleges lack of rules to deal with the aggressors of these attacks. With all of these conversations happening on campus, and on a national level, I found it odd that Andover had not taken the initiative to create a sexual harassment amendment to the Blue Book, if for no other reason than to put students’ minds at rest.

Fortunately, sexual harassment is not an offense that occurs very often at Andover. Sexual harassment does not happen on Andover’s campus nearly as often as it does on many college campuses around the world. However, this does not mean the administration should turn a blind eye to the subject. In the nationally covered sexual harassment cases that have recently taken place on Harvard and Brown’s campuses, schools that are very close to home for many Andover students, there was an apparent lack of ability on the respective administrations parts to deal with these issues. A lack of specific rules regarding sexual harassment was a part of the problem. In the event that a sexual harassment incident should happen on Andover’s campus, the administration needs to be in a position where they have a system in place that dictates how to effectively deal with the situation. These steps would save a sexual harassment victim on Andover’s campus from being put in the position of the girls on the Harvard and Brown campuses who were left feeling like they had no other option but to displace themselves in order to cope with their school’s respective responses, or lack thereof. Many sexual harassment victims do not seek help from their school because there are not distinct rules in place which guarantee them that their aggressor will be adequately punished. If the Academy wrote a sexual harassment amendment to the Blue Book, it could, in fact, help a sexual harassment victim tell their story.

Education and Discipline

This is Sophiya’s video response to the philosophy behind Andover’s approach to discipline.

Goodness Without Knowledge?

This week, I helped lead the class talk about discipline in an academic context. We looked at case studies including Groton School, the New York City Public School System, and Phillips Academy itself, to examine the relationship between a school’s expectations and the actions of its student community.

Ultimately, we focused our time on evaluating the disciplinary system at Andover, which we have all been exposed to in one form or another.  One of the most important questions we raised was: What does the school want us to be, and how well do the rules make those values a reality?

According to my experience as a four-year student at Phillips Academy, not to mention the rules written in the 2013-2014 Blue Book, Phillips Academy holds its students to (justifiably) high standards when it comes to discrimination, sexual assault, drug abuse, and other activities which result in disciplinary action. In fact, it expects us to develop a thorough understanding of these issues on our own, and bases its disciplinary system on the belief that if a wrongdoing occurs, a student will be able to recognize it as such and then report it to the administration.

To the Blue Book’s credit, the introductory statements on many of their policies are prefaced with an explanation of some of the harmful consequences of banned activities, which form the basic reasoning behind their criminalization. For example, the first clause on Tobacco, Alcohol, and Other Drugs on page 6 explains that the use of those substances can cause serious damage to the health of individuals and the community as a whole, which is why they are banned.

I strongly believe that every student, child, and person has a right to know precisely why an authority figure is requiring them to act in a certain way. That’s not to say that they have to agree, but requiring rules to be explained both helps students learn about the potential consequences of their actions and ensures that certain rules are justifiable to begin with.

This is supported by the work of Diana Baumrind, a well-known developmental psychologist who found that children whose parents actually explained their commands ended up more socially responsible and independent than all other children. It turns out there’s a benefit to treating youth as intelligent beings capable of rational thought.

However, if the administration truly does “strive to educate students about the potential dangers” (page 6) of drugs, and if it honestly “makes every effort to achieve an educational environment that is free from harassment, discrimination, hazing, and bullying” (page 14), I’m far from the only student who doesn’t remember that happening. In fact, I have found that many of the problems associated with substance abuse, discrimination, and harassment are unclear or ignored by an alarmingly large number of students here.

Just this week, my dormitory had to hold an emergency dorm meeting when my house counselors overheard some students using racial slurs. In small groups, the dorm spent an hour simply reviewing the definition of “microaggression,” something many students had never actually understood. The week before, we all met in the common room to receive a lecture about sexting with a Q&A session. These are just the latest of a long series of dorm meetings over the past four years which made understanding the consequences of harmful actions a chore to be done after hours, as quickly as possible, so that we can go back to our homework.

When the administration says they “strive” to educate the student body about these topics, they mean that they confine virtually all official teachings or discussions of discipline issues to one or two brief meetings, at the beginning of the year, in the context of a dorm late at night, taught by house counselors who themselves are not trained to know more than the list of rules they are given before such meetings.

As someone who believes that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, I think it would be in the best interests of the administration, the student body, and the entire community to reconsider a curriculum which values a student’s ability to solve, plot, and integrate a function as needing more time and emphasis than a student’s ability to be a good person.

To be fair, those students who happen to come in as Freshmen or New Lowers are required to take a pass-fail, one-term class (often during lunch) to talk about social issues. PACE (Personal and Community Education) isn’t inherently bad, but it once again limits official discussions of extremely important topics such as race, class, gender, and sexuality to brief sessions for underclassmen in an after-thought setting.

If the administration is practicing what they preach, apparently they don’t think upperclassmen or day students even need any education on these topics. I think it’s possible that the administration earnestly believes that the brilliant, talented, hard-working students of Andover come in with a mastery of discipline, a deep knowledge of social issues, and an underlying commitment to being kind people; it’s certainly true that some Andover students do step onto campus with those tools under their belt.

Sadly, that’s simply not the case for everyone. As much as admissions tries to admit nice people (the Class of 2014 was dubbed the “nice” class based on that effort), the ability to be a good person is not as clearly marked on an application as the ability to solve, plot, and integrate a function. Besides, virtually none of us have been in a place with such a diverse group of people, causing us to be aware of identities, values, and actions we never had to think about in the past. The flip side of diversity is that we also have such different educations and backgrounds that it’s simply not fair to assume that we share common knowledge about any of these complicated issues.

For example, students from states in the South have said that they never had any sex-ed to begin with. Some of my friends from European countries are shocked that the administration considers alcohol to be a significant danger to minors.

Because our disciplinary system consists of committees and discussions which, except in the most extreme cases, rely almost entirely on anecdote provided by students or other members of the community, it is imperative that everyone in the community has a strong common understanding of what exactly the Blue Book is talking about.

In a school full of people whose common trait is a tendency towards academic success, many students are going to prioritize the materials they are required to learn, practice, and be tested about on a regular basis and in a academic manner over the materials which are treated like a chore. I don’t think my dorm would have such a struggle to understand microaggression if they had to define it and use examples.

The idea that “Knowledge” and “Goodness” should complement each other is written in our very school constitution.  “Goodness without Knowledge” is described as feeble. Personally, I don’t think it’s even possible to have the former without the latter: how can you be good if you don’t know what “good” is?

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